Why Assumptions About Others Aren’t Worth It

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Don’t make assumptions about people.

This is advice we hear all the time.  In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz provides four lessons (agreements) for life, one of which is to never make assumptions about anything.  Ruiz spends a quarter of his book (yes a quarter) disowning assumptions and explains how they are damaging for yourself and the people around you.

Ok great don’t make assumptions about others, let’s all go on with our days.

That would normally be the end of this post, but unfortunately all of us, at one time or another, have succumb to the assumption bug.  It’s too easy to sit back and make assumptions about others.  We all do it.

In order to effectively resist the urge of assumptions, we must think about them through a risk and reward lens.

Risk and Reward

Risk and reward is a tool we use to dictate our decisions and actions.  The best decisions involve minimizing risk while maximizing the potential reward.  Put another way, the best choices create the mantra “everything to gain, nothing to lose”.

Financial investors invest in stocks low in risk but high in reward.  Gamblers wage low bets that have the potential for high payouts.  Shoot for the moon—as long as you have a safety net to fall back on.

When it comes to assumptions, the mantra should be “everything to lose, nothing to gain”.  There is massive risk with very little to no reward.  Let’s dive a bit deeper by breaking down the limited rewards and the numerous risks to assumptions.

Assumption Rewards

The greatest reward for having a correct assumption about another person is getting to say “I told you so”.  I told you he works for the government.  I told you she’s the child’s babysitter.  I told you she’s a junior associate at the company.  See, I told you so and was I right.

Is saying “I told you so” really a reward though?  From your ego’s perspective it is.  An accurate assumption feeds directly to your ego.  Jumping to a correct conclusion before others can give one a sense of superiority and being ahead of the curve.

If your ultimate goal is to look smarter than your peers, then continue on with the assumptions.  Keep in mind though, there is far greater risks to operating this way.

Assumption Risks

Below, I’ve identified three major risks when it comes to making assumptions about others.

1. Embarrassment

If you assume something that turns out to be false, it can be quite embarrassing.  You see a man with a younger looking woman and you assume it’s the man’s second go around at marriage.  He must have suffered a mid-life crises and this is his way of making things right.  You ask the man about his beautiful wife, only to learn the woman is his biological child.

Swing and a miss.

Now you look like a complete moron in front of this guy.  You’ve made an assumption that has backfired and now you are trying to figure out how to end this unpleasant conversation.

2. Hurt Feelings

Imagine you’ve started a new job. On the first day at work you meet a gentlemen who you assume is a junior employee.  You ask him how recently he started at the company and his response is he’s the founder and CEO.

Cringe.

Unfortunately the founder deals with this false assumption on a daily basis.  As a result, he deals with self-doubt, which is enhanced by your false assumption.

3. Confusion

Ever had the experience of listening to a long story, only to be confused the entire time?  Usually there’s one piece of information you assumed to be true, which caused the confusion in the first place.

If a friend tells you a story about somebody, it’s easy to make an assumption about that person to fill in the details.  Though we have powerful imaginations, the things we choose to imagine about others don’t always reflect reality.

The Assumption Wager

Once you understand assumptions through a risk and reward lens, you come to realize it’s almost never worth it.  Making assumptions about others is like placing a $100 bet and getting $102 back.  The reward is a net $2 gain and the risk is losing $100.

Would you place this bet?  Hopefully the answer is no.  And if you’d say no to a $100 bet with a $2 payout, then you should say no to assumptions.

Either you’re right about somebody and you get to say “I told you so”, or you’re wrong and you risk embarrassment, hurt feelings, and confusion.

The choice is yours.


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